The challenges of the future battlefield will be so large, so complicated, that military transformation is not just important, but absolutely essential. This has become so widely accepted, across all services, that it has become something of a truism. And yet despite the litany of proclamations committing to innovation, the system continues to asphyxiate far too much of the disruptive activity that will be critical to solving the problems faced by the US military in the years to come. Frustrations are felt from top to bottom, yet nothing seems to change. Even initiatives led by four-star generals such as the Marine Corps’s Force Design 2030 and the Air Force’s Accelerate Change or Lose have experienced struggles in their implementation. On the opposite side, young mavericks have disrupted their way from the bottom up yet are blunted along their path. Closing this disconnect requires an effort that attacks the problem from both sides. Leaders and disruptors must unite to fight the constraints of the system in order to prevail in future conflicts.
The bureaucracy that has long been a central feature of American national security can be remarkably effective. Bureaucracies are equipped to solve technical problems where authority, experience, and existing solutions can provide a pretext to decisions. When something within the system works, it is by design difficult to change it. The exact opposite is true when our system is posed with a dynamic problem without any clear solution such as strategic competition. It proposes a questionable paradox: for an institution that must be ready to evolve alongside the ever-changing character of war, why do militaries rely on bureaucracies for survival?
The awareness of the bureaucracy’s impediments is not a unique or even recent revelation for national security practitioners—just read The Kill Chain or Action Order B. The rigidity of thought and inability to adapt appropriately to threats in recent conflicts are inseparable from the congestion of bureaucratic mechanisms within the Department of Defense. The stakes of this problem are increasingly high. An organization that values conformity over ingenuity in order to keep the cogs of an obsolete machine running is bound to lead to disastrous implications. Who can fix this?
Raising talent equipped to meet dynamic strategic challenges is difficult within an organizational culture that inherently values technical and tactical excellence over other skills. Individuals are measured and evaluated throughout the foundational periods of their careers against granular statistics aligned with niche skill sets. Of course, the system should reward leaders who perform superbly in their occupation. However, this narrow perception of what qualifies someone for promotion only fosters a pool of talent with like-minded perspective and a limited collective capability set. This is perpetuated through professional military education. In Adaptation Under Fire, retired Lieutenant General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel highlight a 2013 study conducted by the US Army War College, which found that as leaders grow through their careers they become less open to ideas. The inability for leaders to think outside the boundaries of predetermined priorities impedes the progression of strategic thought. Moreover, the effects are compounded tactically in the field, as young leaders are anointed by their mentors who have risen through the ranks and the torch is passed to the next generation. On one hand, this provides a degree of consistency that can be useful. But on the other, it effectively prepares world-class people for a world that no longer exists.
But what about those who find as much inspiration in Musk as much as they do in Mattis? Not everyone fits a prescribed mold. The deliberate inculcation of closed-mindedness by the system deters the contribution of new, nonconforming ideas and can exhaust individual service members’ desire to continue to serve. Programs such as Education with Industry seek to provide opportunities through year-long commercial fellowships, but without a deliberate strategy to leverage the perspectives gained through such programs, new ideas can perish in the system’s stagnation. Visionary, entrepreneurial minds exist in the ranks, with abilities desired by nearly any Fortune 500 company, yet are subverted instead of supported by the system that needs them most. Their inspiration is frequently stomped out by the status quo, and their fire extinguished. Mavericks, the catalyst to change, are often left to die without a chance to make a difference.
The problem is not just one that affects mavericks—those on the extreme end of the disruption spectrum who are often perceived to have gone rogue. Even the rank-and-file service members who are simply inclined toward innovation may experience similar pushback as they are told to just do their job. When new ideas threaten stability and consistency, bureaucracy digs in its heels. In effect, disruption and consistency are at opposite poles, both resisting the other. The result is stagnation. No one in this situation truly seeks a stagnated system, however, and there remains an opportunity for cultural change that preserves the systemic efficiency of bureaucracy and makes room for innovation to drive necessary change—essentially, a cultural convergence.
The Air Force Innovation Ecosystem Today
Even within the American military’s bureaucracy, the necessity for adaptation has planted the roots of an innovation ecosystem. The Air Force offers a useful case in point. General C.Q. Brown Jr. has demanded action, yet the majority of people with access to resources are either inundated with tasks or have acted like bystanders. Instead, the young, visionary, and often digitally native leaders have led the charge to shape the future through unconventional means without any official tasking by the service or senior leadership. AFWERX, an organization that partners with commercial entities to rapidly field high-value commercial and military capability and expands the network of innovative airmen and guardians, was founded by company-grade officers in 2017. Kessel Run, a software factory designed to rapidly deliver combat capabilities to warfighters and revolutionize acquisition processes was also started by captains in 2017. Tesseract, an organization within the Air Staff at the Pentagon founded to accelerate logistics innovation through the ideas of frontline airmen was also founded by a captain and a newly minted major in 2019. While task forces, working groups, and competitions have been established in the name of innovation, it has been the intrapreneurs across the Air Force who have made change become reality by simply not taking no for answer—a bold strategy when it works, and a dangerous one for the junior member when leaders are threatened instead of inspired.
Small teams like these which have bucked the status quo are not an anomaly in the Information Age. Look no further than Silicon Valley. Titans have been toppled by young professionals only equipped with a laptop and a dream. The average unicorn founder, individuals who found companies that eventually exceed a $1 billion valuation, starts his or her business at thirty-four years old. That’s the average age of majors and seasoned noncommissioned officers. Yet, this is nearly the number of years it takes after commissioning to become a general officer in the United States military. A cultural concept also embraced within Silicon Valley has been the emphasis on meritocracy instead of hierarchy. In that regard, an open office space full of employees in T-shirts, jeans, and flip flops isn’t just about looking cool and comfortable; it is a signal that the merit of employees’ ideas—not whether they wear gold cufflinks or particular rank insignia—is what motivates decisions about what ideas to act on.
This culture of inclusion and contribution is a culture of innovation. In contrast, Adam Grant, in testimony to Congress in April 2021, claimed the culture of the Department of Defense stifles innovation. He made the case that it is the ideas, not the technologies or processes, that will ultimately project power against our adversaries in future conflicts. Notably, organizations such as Kessel Run and Tesseract began their missions by releasing the burdens of the existing culture and embraced the concept of psychological safety despite their highly technical mission requirements with software, operations, maintenance, and logistics readiness. AFWERX, through Spark Cells, creates physical spaces that invite frontline airmen to experiment and invent. Teammates who do not feel able to contribute without retribution will likely not share ideas. Airmen can shed rank and don first names. Cultural artifacts no longer need to serve as obstacles to contribution. An idea, not a title, determines action. Subcultures of elite units such as special operations forces or even aircrews show that this culture is possible. As a result, these symbolic gestures of rejection of cultural norms might further alienate those most adherent to the system, yet critically, they bond defectors even tighter.
With these pockets of success, the vision and voice has slowly multiplied. Kessel Run has enhanced the information strategy toward Joint All-Domain Command and Control; Tesseract has operationalized the Air Force’s logistics priorities; AFWERX has brought airmen to solutions ranging from 3D printing parts to enhancing agile combat employment capabilities. These new organizations are generating strategic effects across the Air Force not because they are equipped with the right resources, but because they have the right people—a combination of mavericks, who act boldly to identify and meet future needs, paired with leaders who see their value and potential. Even organizations such as the Air Force Research Laboratory, Combat Ready Airmen, and Rapid Sustainment Office, while having emerged from within the existing bureaucracy, have begun to lean into warfighter demands.
These seeds of success are still not perfect. Growth of an innovation culture has also unfortunately been trailed by innovation theater across the Department of Defense. Airmen on stage receiving a trophy from a general is motivational, but a rapidly prototyped and implemented solution in the field is a force multiplier. Without systematic pathways to scale empowered through innovation doctrine, innovations will find themselves as data points on a slide deck or a performance report instead of in the field making a difference. Despite the calls to accelerate change from decision makers, some solutions have taken these disruptive teams years to deliver when they just needed a stakeholder to say yes. Granted, the acquisition process is broken, but the perception of military mavericks has had the had the effect of slowing innovation.
Moreover, even with advancements in innovation, the ecosystem must invest more in discovering the underlying root cause of stagnation in organizational culture. Culture-building tools by Tesseract such as Foundations and courses sponsored by AFWERX like Design Warfare that teach user-centered design are focused on the human element of change, but these efforts are too few and far between across the ecosystem. The investment in human capital, not necessarily technology, is the prerequisite to sustaining a true culture of innovation and crossing the valley of death. Morpheus, which is under the purview of the vice chief of staff of the Air Force, seeks to enable and unify efforts across the Air Force’s strategic level. It is critical that the innovation ecosystem continues to deliver results and encourage the right behaviors to alter these perceptions.
The success of these creations and the power of the ideas bred from the networks they have connected will end only as case studies penned at professional military education programs if leaders do not protect the cultural integrity of this movement. In that event, these organizations will inevitably succumb to what they have fought so hard against. When it destroys, an untamed system does not discriminate. Just as disruptors must appreciate the magnitude of the cultural shift they are asking of their leaders, leaders in turn cannot take these people and programs for granted.
So where are these modern-day military mavericks today? Unfortunately, most of them are no longer on active duty and the few who remain are no longer building or scaling the impactful organization they helped found. Reminiscent of their fellow airmen John Boyd and Billy Mitchell, too many have been seemingly rejected by the system. Such exile should not be an airman tradition. Also like Boyd and Mitchell, generations of their acolytes must continue to dent the universe and evolve the character of war.
Deliberate collaboration between the existing system and intrapreneurs is not just an idealistic objective. Amazon provides a replicable model. Amazon employees are empowered to take their ideas and grow them into solutions. By “working backward,” they are inspired to think big and put their ideas on paper in a forward-thinking press release and envision a world where their solutions make an impact. Nothing is off the table. Some of the biggest projects executed by Amazon, such as robotic delivery, were sketched on an infamous door desk and landed in the hands of Jeff Bezos. Not only are Amazon employees provided resources to execute their ideas by their senior leadership, but teams or entire departments often are, as well. It is not unheard of for frontline managers at Amazon to be promoted to an executive-level position simply because of the power of an idea. And even if Amazon spends its budget on an initiative and it goes south, that is embraced by their organizational culture. Bezos has famously said, “We need big failures if we’re going to move the needle—billion-dollar scale failures. And if we’re not, we’re not swinging hard enough.”
There are ways the Department of Defense can synchronize perspectives with intrapreneurs to deliver strategic effects, as well. Warfighters should have the ability to showcase their enterprise solutions to the appropriate governance working group, board, or council alongside a shadow board of innovation ecosystem pioneers to balance both bureaucratic and disruptive perspectives. Ideas should be presented through the form of a written proposal measuring specific mission impacts in order to speak the language of the bureaucracy. This is not to be conflated with the existing Spark Tank model—not only would this board be responsible for program selection, but a senior leader board member would then sign on to become a sponsor to effectively resource and shield these entities from the onslaught of bureaucratic defense mechanisms. These leaders in effect would be the “innovation catalysts” that have been cited in the 2016 study “The Role of Experimentation Campaigns in the Air Force Innovation Life Cycle” as the essential foundation to make innovation possible. A two- to five-year period as a special duty assignment to develop these ideas, located wherever they need to be, would ensure ample time is provided to build a foundation for the program and synchronize priorities across stakeholders. Where appropriate, this type of assignment should also come with a frocked promotion to overcome at least some hierarchical barriers. The sustainment of these programs should be considered through rigorous evaluation of return on investment based on current needs.
Consistency is key. If the program is determined viable by the board after quantifiable success, founders should have the ability to elect to stay to see their vision out and transition to an intrapreneurial job specialty code. This type of continuity is critical to prevent the bureaucratization of innovation, as replacements without context or understanding will likely transform a valuable creation into just another layer of the system.
Commercial collaboration is another critical component of a more optimized innovation culture. It is worth noting that the defense funding cycles inhibit growth and revisions should be made to the National Defense Authorization Act to empower and enable acquisition of these internal programs and to lower barriers to entry for commercial solutions. Small Business Innovation Research grants as they exist today are not built to sustain innovation given their complexities and the financial barriers to entry for small companies. Reforms that address these issues would pay off through the retention of brilliant minds and acceleration of war-winning capabilities. We cannot wait for the next crisis to make major legislative reforms.
Understanding of the private sector is just as important as funding it. Leaders must seek to understand how venture capitalists, small businesses, and corporate enterprises function in order to leverage them effectively. Even without the desired acquisition capabilities, Defense Ventures, NavalX, National Security Innovation Network, and Defense Innovation Unit are all critical nodes to commercial cultural integration. Another interesting model to emulate is the Marine Innovation Unit, which seeks to tap into Marine reservists’ civilian experience and inject advanced technical knowledge into the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
Additional bureaucratic mechanisms must also be reconsidered to enable long-term retention of innovators. Innovation doctrine should also be supplemented with a continued evolution of promotion tracks and awards systems. In order to inspire the right actions the system must encourage the right behaviors. For instance, not every officer needs to be a commander. Needs of the service are important, of course, but true talent management is not a rigid path to a perception of success.
While this may seem like a small component when seeking to optimize the military industrial complex, these specific personnel and innovation pipelines fill a critical gap in national security. Leaders must take a chance on the visionaries with the energy, perspective, and determination to mold the future. Americans are culturally capable of adaptation and innovation, but the bureaucracy inhibits the services from capitalizing on—and most importantly, retaining—these capabilities. In a climate where leaders ask to innovate and seek to reward it, these same champions must incur risk and challenge the status quo themselves. Leaders must embrace mavericks who have risen to the occasion and shield them from the bureaucracy that is threatened by their work. It is time to think differently. As General C.Q. Brown Jr. has said, if we don’t accelerate change, we will lose.
Matthew Miranda is a communication strategist with the United States Air Force. His focus is to develop and execute engagement plans to connect warfighters with resources to drive innovation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma and is currently a graduate student at Georgetown University studying applied intelligence.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or those of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the United States Air Force.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Taylor A. Workman, US Air Force